Once upon a time, they were important. They were more than just video-game characters scrambling to be the next Pac-Man or Mario. They were the symbols of game companies, seen in logos and commercials and as many cameo appearances as possible. Then they dropped out of the spotlight, thrown aside by a game industry that just didn’t have a place for a bald cave-child or a cross-eyed pink dinosaur.
They’re the fallen mascots of game generations past. Some were too bland to survive. Some hit a streak of lousy games. Some were just hitched to the wrong company. But all of them were mascots in the true sense. They served as the public faces of developers and publishers, and that makes the difference between a Bonk and a Battletoad. Here’s a chronicle of the once-proud mascots worth remembering today.
As icons of the game industry go, Alex Kidd was just too darned nice. The same can be said for the Sega Master System, which only shrugged while Nintendo’s NES conquered the game industry and the youth of the world in the 1980s. Alex Kidd was there through it all, a vaguely apelike action hero who punched things with his expandable fists. In testament to Sega’s wishy-washy approach to the Master System, Alex was the console’s mascot just because no one could think of a better one.
Not that Alex Kidd was lacking in material. His first game, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, mixed the stylings of a side-scroller with motorbike racing, helicopter flights, and rock-paper-scissors mini-games. Yet it was nothing that kids couldn’t get on the NES, and the same went for Alex’s subsequent games: The Lost Stars, BMX Trial, High-Tech World, and Shinobi World. Even the arrival of the Sega Genesis didn’t give him an edge. The 16-bit Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle was still a banal side-scroller, and Alex was still a big-eared boy who never stood up to Mario and Nintendo. Alex Kidd in Shinobi World originally featured a big-nosed, mustachioed boss named “Mari-Oh,” but this was changed for the final game. Alex wasn’t very good at confrontations.
Sega needed a more aggressive mascot to accompany the Genesis and its more combative advertising, and they found it in Sonic the Hedgehog. Alex Kidd was swiftly relegated to the world of cameos, showing up as a vending-machine prize in Shenmue and, in a heartbreaking turn, a depressed store clerk in the parody RPG Segagaga.
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Sega canceled a remake of Miracle World for their Sega Ages 2500 series, but they cared enough to put Alex in the recent Sega All-Stars Racing as well as Sega Superstars Tennis.
The TurboGrafx-16 was marked by false starts, especially in its search for a mascot. NEC’s console launched in North America with Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, which was Hudson’s Mashin Eiyuden Wataru game renamed and packed with a superhero comic. This made no impression on TurboGrafx owners, and the system’s real hero soon emerged from Bonk’s Adventure, a side-scroller about a cave-child who bashes enemies with his giant hairless noggin. It was Bonk who appeared in TurboGrafx ads and fliers. It was Bonk who stood against Sonic and Mario. And it was Bonk who should’ve been bundled with every TurboGrafx from the get-go.
Bonk’s three main side-scrollers are solid stuff, with bright, simple graphics that recall The Flintstones as much as they do children’s anime. Unfortunately, Bonk himself lacked a gimmick. It was amusing to watch him beat back foes with his head or gnaw his way up a cliff, but nothing he did really influenced gameplay (and advertising) quite as effectively as Sonic’s speed. Still, he beat Keith Courage by miles.
Bonk was remodeled in 1992 for Air Zonk, a shooter that starred a futuristic cyborg version of the caveman hero. It arrived just in time to make Zonk the mascot for NEC’s TurboDuo, despite the briefly disastrous introduction of a comic-book spokesman called Johnny Turbo. Fortunately, the Bonk of the Future won out as the TurboDuo’s poster boy until the system’s demise. As with most things on the TurboGrafx, Bonk knew greater success in Japan. Under the name PC Genjin (a play on the TurboGrafx’s Japanese incarnation, the PC Engine), Bonk saw a mini-game collection and many ports of his original game released there. He didn’t quite make it into the next generation of consoles, however, as a Nintendo 64 version of Bonk was scuttled and turned into Bomberman 64.
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Bonk was poised for a comeback just last year, when a newly reformed American branch of Hudson showed off Bonk: Brink of Extinction, a simple platformer for the Wii, Xbox Live Arcade, and PlayStation Network. Unfortunately, Hudson’s U.S. branch shut down in 2011, and Bonk’s big return was canceled. Hudson mascots like Master Higgins and the Hudson Bee remain prominent, but Bonk’s still waiting.
Asmik’s contributions to video games are minor. Though they published dozens of titles for various Nintendo systems, their best finds were curious mediocrities like Xardion and Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth. During the height of Nintendo’s early-1990s popularity, however, Asmik was an up-and-coming publisher with ambition, an American branch, and a pink dinosaur for a mascot.
At first, Asmik didn’t have a name for the creature. He was “Asmik-Kun” in Japan, but that didn’t have the proper ring for North America. After a small contest, Asmik dubbed him “Boomer” (though Nintendo Power originally misidentified him as “Bronty”) and rolled out his first game: Boomer’s Adventure in Asmik World. It was a simple maze-walker for the Game Boy, and it failed to land Boomer any merchandising deals or Saturday morning TV contracts. In fact, this was Boomer’s only game released in North America. He endured as Asmik’s mascot, however, and the company’s NES and Game Boy releases show him on the packaging and title screens. By the time Asmik moved on to the Super NES, Boomer was gone.
Boomer’s Japanese species lasted a little longer, appearing in a second Game Boy puzzle-action game as well as a Famicom side-scroller titled Asmik-Kun Land. A low-effort entry, Asmik-Kun Land is notable mostly for Boomer’s oddly animated tail attack, which makes him look like he’s farting on enemies.
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Asmik became Asmik Ace Entertainment after a 1997 merger, and the new company is far more devoted to film distribution and anime ventures than video games. If Boomer is anywhere, he’s buried deep with their storerooms.
Captain Commando’s origins are curious. He was created not for a video game but for the packaging of Capcom’s early NES releases, dubbed the Captain Commando Challenge Series. Extrapolating his name from Capcom’s (which itself came from “Capsule Computer” arcade units), the Captain appeared on game boxes and in manuals, clad in the height of disco-superhero finery. Capcom’s American branch even fiddled with Section Z’s backstory to make Captain Commando the main character, though the in-game sprite was never edited to include his medallions and amazing Technicolor space-coat. Perhaps he wasn’t out of place on packaging that also turned Mega Man into an glowing, hunched abomination.
Capcom updated Captain Commando’s look for the next round of NES games, and so titles like Mega Man 2 and Strider bore a square-jawed, astronaut-pilot hero worthy of a B-movie Star Wars rip-off. The Captain Commando Challenge Series continued with this new icon and his unnamed blue space-monkey sidekick, though this new look lasted no longer than the first.
The Captain was redesigned again in 1991, when Capcom granted him his own game. A brawler much in the style of Final Fight, Captain Commando fashioned its title character into an anime superhero with his own crimefighting cadre, consisting of a Mummy Commando, a Ninja Commando, and a Baby Commando who pilots an adult-sized robot. While built with the same solid foundation as Capcom’s other beat-’em-ups of the day, Captain Commando is a rather routine journey with a violent detail or two (Mummy Commando’s attack dissolve enemies, and a promotional comic shows the game’s villains graphically murdering civilians). But this was the version of Captain Commando that would stick, and he looked much the same when he showed up in Marvel vs. Capcom and its sequel. He was no longer Capcom’s mascot, however. That role belongs to Mega Man–or at least it did until Capcom canceled his last two titles.